GEORGIA BELIEF POPE.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

Pope Francis landed Sunday in Azerbaijan, a majority Shia Muslim and former Soviet state that has become a major oil and gas supplier to Europe, on the last leg of a weekend trip to the Caucasus region.

Francis was given a low-key airport welcome by a government official, with neither fanfare nor cheering crowds, before being whisked off to celebrate Mass and deliver his Sunday Angelus message in central Baku.

Azerbaijan has a tiny Catholic minority - 570 people, or 0.01 per cent of the total population, served by just one parish and seven priests, according to Vatican statistics.

The pontiff was later to meet President Ilham Aliyev, a three-term authoritarian leader who less than a week ago managed to extend his powers via a referendum vote, amid criticism from human rights activists.

Francis and Aliyev were set to lead a ceremony at an award-winning complex designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, and named after the president's father Heydar, who was Azerbaijan's strongman from the late 1960s until his death in 2003.

The pope's agenda also includes talks with local Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox leaders, and a visit to a national monument to the fallen, which also commemorates victims of a still unresolved conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The first leg of Francis' September 30-October 2 trip to the Caucasus was in Georgia. He was aiming to deliver messages of peace and religious tolerance in a tense area at the crossroads between Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

He was expected to hold a press conference on the return flight to Rome late Sunday.

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